Harnessing our sense of smell to influence learning and performance outcomes

How does learning happen?

Learning occurs when:

  • our senses receive information from our environment
  • stimulating our neurons to send electrical and chemical signals across synapses (ie gaps between neurons)
  • bonding together to create neural pathways that then connect to form a network.

It is this network that enables us to recall memories. Repeating this process strengthens these connections and creates a more complex network which makes it more efficient for us to think which is how we perform at our best.

The effort required to complete this process is often referred to as cognitive load. This is a limited resource and we need to take care to use it effectively. 

So how might we do this?

Making thinking and learning efficient

When we simultaneously stimulate lots of neurons that are not in close proximity to others, we miss the opportunity for these bonds to form. We invest our energy (cognitive load) but we reduce our ability to achieve our desired result. Just think about how difficult it is to think clearly when there is lots of noise. Our senses are competing with rather than complementing each other and some of our effort is wasted.

To avoid this, we need to ensure all our senses are processing similar information. 

Engaging multiple senses for learning

We have five senses but very rarely use all of them for learning. We are possibly overly reliant on our sight and hearing and sometimes our touch, but rarely intentionally employ our senses of smell or taste to learn. Well not in a formal education setting anyway. But let’s think about how a baby learns? Most babies are intrinsically curious. They learn through discovery and they often use multiple senses innately to understand the world around them. 

The unmatchable power of smell

Have you ever noticed that there are some aromas that, when smelt, instantly transport us back to a time and place in our memory where we once perceived them?

Let’s look at why this occurs, by understanding a little about how the brain functions.

What happens in our brain when we smell an aroma?

Aromas enter our brain via the nasal cavity in our nose where they are perceived by the olfactory bulb. (Image 1).

Image 1. The Olfactory System within the Brain

This system links directly to our limbic system which is responsible for our memory and emotion. When we perceive an aroma, our brain receives this message in the limbic system, triggering our memory and emotion. This bypasses our prefrontal cortex (where thinking occurs) and eliminates our need to think when forming or recalling memories. Bingo!

So, if we want to optimise our brain for learning, employing the sense of smell is an efficient way to do this that will not draw on that limited cognitive load.

Employing aromas for learning

Aromatherapy is a natural approach to health and wellbeing that has been used for thousands of years for its therapeutic benefits. It engages our sense of smell due to the significant psychological influence it can have over our feelings and our behavior.

As I have discussed above, aromas contribute to our memory and influence our emotions because of the strong connection to the limbic system in our brain. Our limbic system is also responsible for the activation of our stress response and aromatherapy can assist in reversing this to achieve a state of relaxation and wellbeing.

Aromatherapy uses essential oils which are extracted from plants occurring in nature. It is not the individual constituents of oil that give it its qualities but the unique and complex mix when combined. Therefore, it is best to use pure 100% natural oils from plants grown in a healthy environment to capture the delicate mix of organic constituents that combine to give the oil its healing qualities. This is why I have researched and created the ideal blends that can help us to alter the way we feel so we can achieve the ideal state for learning and maximise our memory making capacity.

The aroma of the essential oils may be enough to induce the desired effect, but their influence may be enhanced through massage, bathing or inhalation.

Blending oils can enhance the qualities of each individual oil so that the effectiveness of the combination is greater than the sum of the individual oils by themselves.

A note of caution, essential oils are extremely concentrated and need to be diluted for most applications. This can be achieved with a base carrier oil produced from unrefined, cold-pressed vegetable, nut or seed oil as these oils are easily absorbed by the skin. It is best to purchase essential oils from a reliable source and follow all safety instructions as advised.


Mojay, G1997, Aromatherapy for the healing spirit, Healing Art Press, London. 

Y. Soudry, C. Lemogne, D. Malinvaud, S.-M. Consoli, P. Bonfils (2011). Olfactory system and emotion: Common substrates, European Annals of Otorhinolaryngology, Head and Neck Diseases, Volume 128, Issue 1, 2011,
Pages 18-23,